Most on the left struggle to see how the Maori and National parties could ever coalesce or even how the Maori Party could help National into power. ‘Surely the parties are mortal enemies?’ they say. This fails to understand the political nature of both parties. These two nationalist parties have much more in common than most realise, and this means that their current repositioning could yet yield a closer working relationship or even a coalition agreement – especially if a repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act is involved. [Read more below]
Last week Chris Trotter argued in his weekly Friday column that the National Party's determination to forge a coalition with the Maori Party is now so great that it’s willing to provide the Maori Party with its most sought-after goal: the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act (See: Seabed makes odd bedmates). According to Trotter, a rumour is developing in political circles that National will propose to legislate to ‘restore to our beaches the indeterminate legal status they enjoyed immediately after the Court of Appeal's bombshell judgment of 2003 and before the passage of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004’. Trotter says that National’s likely next attorney-general, Christopher Finlayson, is apparently already drafting the repeal legislation.
Trotter is suggesting that National might change its position on the Foreshore and Seabed Act and now support its repeal – especially if it is the price of obtaining post-election Maori Party agreement for National to govern. Clearly, if such a rumour turns out to be true, this will be a shock to those leftists who see the Maori Party as leftwing and therefore refuse to countenance the possibility of it doing any type of deal with National.
Despite the illusions of many on the left, repeal of the F&S Act would be a rightwing law change, which is why National and Act could be comfortable doing so. (The fact that it would also involve the Maori Party and Greens says much about their ideological confusion and centrism). After all, Trotter argues – like myself in the article Nationalise the Foreshore and Seabed – that Labour’s Foreshore and Seabed Act was progressive in terms of nationalising the beaches so that they could continue to be used by all. Trotter says that without the F&S Act there was a very real danger of the privatisation of beaches occurring leading to restricted access and use:
The Court of Appeal's 2003 decision had the very real potential to see huge swaths of the nation's public beaches transferred into what, in effect, would have been private ownership. Under our legal system, Maori tribal entities enjoy the same rights as any other form of collective body – be it an incorporated society, a trade union or a private or public company. As "legal persons", they can acquire and dispose of property as they see fit. As a gesture of goodwill, such legal persons may afford the general public ready access to their property. But if, for whatever reason, they decide to restrict the public's access, there is nothing the latter can do about it.
Michael Cullen's legislation was, in effect, a renationalisation of the foreshore and seabed on behalf of the whole nation – Maori and Pakeha. The Maori Party, the ACT Party, and (to their shame) the Greens, in calling for the act's repeal, are, in reality, calling for the privatisation of large parts of the New Zealand coastline.
The F&S Act was clearly a progressive enactment. And those arguing for its repeal – including the Maori Party, Act, and the Greens – are essentially falling into line with a rightwing approach around ‘property rights’, in fact private-business property rights. In this sense it was always rather inconsistent - but highly pragmatic - for the National Party to support Labour’s F&S Act in the first place.
Could National really do a flip-flop on the Foreshore and Seabed Act?
On the same day that Trotter published his rumour about National and the Maori Party striving for a deal on the F&S Act, David W Young and Ben Thomas wrote in the NBR a very similar opinion – but from the right. Entitled ‘National carefully cosies up to the Maori Party’, Young and Thomas’ article puts forward the view that National could indeed swallow such a dead-rat. The subtitle of their piece was: ‘All it takes is a tiny sidestep on the foreshore and seabed ownership issue’. Young and Thomas argue that for National to change its policy on the F&S Act ‘wouldn't require a massive leap. More of a side-step’. They say that, ‘Coming up with a principled reason to do an about-face will require some acrobatic contortions’, but that this could indeed be done. After all, National’s performed flip-flops on so many other important issues – see the previous blog post on National’s U-turns; Labour’s disorientation.
More problematic for National is its support base, which is strongly in favour of a nationalised coastline. In this sense, National’s support base might even be seen to be more left than the party. Free and common access to beaches is probably much more important to them than having any rightwing notion of ‘property rights’ upheld. Young and Thomas put it differently, but acknowledge the problem:
there's the risk that centrist voters will turn against National before it’s even in Parliament, because of a major flip-flop. Here, leader John Key could play up the differences between himself and his predecessor. On race relations policies more than anything else, his party has changed.
And as pointed out later in this post, this is largely true – National is indeed becoming more liberal on such issues.
Could the Maori Party survive putting National into power?
It’s generally assumed that the Maori Party would have much to lose from going into coalition with National. Some commentators point to the price that NZ First paid by propping up National in 1996. But, transposing that example onto the Maori Party in 2008 doesn’t necessarily work. Whereas NZ First clearly campaigned in the first MMP election on throwing out the unpopular incumbent National Government and then did the opposite, the Maori Party is likely to be somewhat more upfront and more convincing about their pragmatic orientation to negotiations. And unlike NZ First’s voters, the Maori Party’s support is likely to be much more willing to allow the Maori Party room to maneuver – after all the Maori Party MPs have already made much of their willingness to go with whatever major party offers them the best policy concessions for Maori. And as recently as Waitangi Day, Young and Thomas point out that the ‘Maori Party MPs were talking up their own relevance by proclaiming that they will hold the balance after this year's election.’ And obviously a strategy that involves ‘holding the balance of power’ logically requires that the party be genuinely willing to negotiate with both Labour and National.
Nonetheless any such deal with National would still take a lot of selling, especially as the vast majority of Maori Party voters in the Maori electorates give their party vote to Labour.
It’s also worth pointing out that NZ First has now been in coalition with the Labour Party since 2005 despite the prior argument of many that the two parties – and especially their activists and supporters – disliked each other too much for it to work. Yet this arrangement has endured.
The point could also be made that Tariana Turia even agreed in 2005 to support a Don Brash-led National Government if they could amass enough votes in Parliament. Of course, it’s more likely that the Maori Party will go onto the cross benches after the 2008 election. From here it could give National or Labour support to govern in return for some major policy concessions on Maori issues. The repeal of the F&S Act would clearly be a major victory for the Maori Party, and most of the party’s supporters would regard this as a considerable policy win. They would also accept that Labour would never give them such a deal. So the Maori Party might well have a relationship with the governing National Party without actively being a coalition partner – much like the relationship the Greens have with the current Labour Government. As one blog commentator recently put it:
> doesn’t have to be a coalition… merely an arrangement on confidence and supply with some policy concessions given to a minor party in exchange for their abstaining on some key policy goals of the governing party or parties. The Greens and/or Maori could reserve the right to criticize a National government outside of certain agreed policy areas. Perhaps we could have a Maori party representative as an Associate Minister or Minister of Race relations or treaty settlements
Already the stage is being set for such a possibility. John Key has even said that if National-friendly Maori voters don't want to vote for National in the Maori seats, he would like them to vote for the Maori Party - that's quite an endorsement.
Maori Party as leftwing
The major point of all of this is that the Maori Party is not necessarily leftwing. Clearly the Maori Party is actually a centrist party with leftish and rightish factions. Turia is in fact in favour of doing a deal favouring National, Sharples is in favour of a deal with Labour, Te Ururoa Flavell’s position is unclear, and Hone Harawira is in favour of a more neutral cross-bench position. With new conservative MPs like Derek Fox being elected later this year, the balance could easily be tipped to the right.
It also has to be realized that the Maori Party has more antagonism towards Labour than it does to National. While National is viewed by most political Maori as being traditionally distant from Maori concerns, the Labour Party’s many betrayals of Maori are taken more seriously. And of course, as Trotter states, ‘Like the Alliance before it, the Maori Party was born out of an immense sense of hurt and betrayal’ by Labour, and this gives the party much more reason to reach out to alternative power bases. (Incidentally, the Alliance’s antagonism towards Labour in its early days played a strong part in its decision to prop up National in government between 1993 and 1995 – which is also further evidence that no one should assume that any minor party will never prop up either National or Labour).
In another recent opinion piece about the Maori Party, Trotter admits that he’s previously been erroneous about the party’s place on the political spectrum:
For many months now commentators from the left of New Zealand politics have routinely included the Maori Party among Labour's potential coalition partners. I have been every bit as prone to this practice as Matt McCarten and Laila Harre.
He concludes that although ‘Pakeha leftists may breathlessly tally up the number of seats available’ to Labour by including the Maori Party in the same bloc, such analysts ‘will be disappointed’ come election day.
In the past Trotter has championed the Maori Party but now, on the basis of the party’s potential to privatise in conjunction with National, he’s much less keen. Trotter instead uses his arguments about the potential political fit between the Maori and National parties as yet another reason to support the Labour Party and thereby starve off a further rightwing revolution. He says if the F&S Act is repealed, thus granting Maori some customary rights in terms of beaches, it could have a much greater flow on affect: ‘if they have a customary right to New Zealand's beaches, then why not its rivers, estuaries, swamps, lakes, forests and everything else?’
Essentially the Maori Party could play a distinctly conservative role in politics. As I’ve written in another post - Once were radicals - far from being ‘dangerous radicals’, as some in the media and politics were initially inclined to describe Turia and colleagues, the Maori Party have proved extremely conservative and amenable to incorporation into the elite. Turia has been a guest speaker at an Act party conference. She has even described the Maori Party views on welfare as being similar to Act’s. She has also said that her political aims are to stop allowing the state to take over their lives, and that ‘This so-called welfare state has not done us any favours’.
Turia justifies a possible coalition with National with the statement that ‘if you look at the history of the National Party, because of their free-market, private-enterprise philosophy, they have actually allowed Maori people to participate and take back some control…. Kohanga reo, kura kaupapa, wananga, Maori health providers and Maori social service providers were Maori initiatives, but all came out under National governments.’
In fact it’s interesting that the NBR’s Young and Thomas say that the Maori Party’s parliamentary record even shows that ‘the party's case-by-case voting decisions see them agreeing with National slightly more than Labour’.
A study of the Maori Party’s political character should also indicate that their strong nationalism sometimes gives the party a similar conservative and rightwing nature to that of National. Although the Maori Party’s nationalism is specifically a Maori nationalism, it is a nationalism nonetheless. And it’s a nationalism increasingly based on a cross-class basis – especially since there is now a clear Maori middle class and Maori capitalists (which of course 50 years ago didn’t really exist). The Maori Party has consciously decided to be a party for all Maori, rather than those who are poor or struggling. It has therefore decided not to be a leftwing party of the working class. Co-leader Pita Shaples has clearly stated that ‘Our philosophies cater to the rich, the poor, to everyone’. And he’s been positive about the business backing the party has received.
This ethnic-oriented cross-class politics means that the party is often drawn towards policies with a reactionary or conservative flavour. Attempting to incorporate a broad range of class support means that the party leadership has a hard job coming up with policies that appeal across the board. One strategy is to adopt a nationalism that can appeal to Maori across the spectrum. Hence Turia has railed against immigration and foreign investment. She has recently said that there are too many whites coming to New Zealand, and absurdly, that successive governments had used immigration against Maori to stop the ‘browning of New Zealand’. See: The Maori Party's anti-immigrant populism
Likewise, other conservative parts of the Maori Party’s programme have included voting against the Civil Union Bill to give greater rights to same-sex couples, voting to raise the drinking age, expressing support for private prisons (to be run by Maori entrepreneurs who are ‘culturally sensitive’), and also to introduce work-for-the-dole. Sharples is even prone to whipping up anti-gang feeling. In 2006 he said he wanted to look at all gang insignia being banned, and he threatened to name and shame gangs and their members. See:
Maori Party and others want to erode civil liberties
As Herald political commentator John Armstrong has argued, there's actually many areas where the interests of the Maori and National parties intersect: 'welfare reform, iwi-based delivery of social services, reviewing the treaty settlement process, and promoting Maori business enterprise'.
The Maori Party has even stated that it might be in favour of the partial privatisation of public assets – if it involves a shift of ownership to iwi corporations, according Sharples – see: Maori Party to favour privatization?
Just how reactionary someone like Tariana Turia can be is exposed by her orientation to the foreign fishing crews that work for iwi-owned local fisheries. When a report was published that showed some of these workers are being paid as little as $195 a month in New Zealand, Turia was adamantly opposed to a plan to raise the hourly pay rates of foreign fishing crews to $12.75. (See: Tribal business)
Add to this, Tariana Turia statements that her party is neither left nor right, but kaupapa and tikanga-driven, and you'll see the ideological trajectory that the party is on. Certainly the party's recent advocacy of work-for-the-dole - together with their immigration and law and order campaigns, and their courting of the corrupt Philip Field - should be a fairly solid signal that the party is not a left one.
Race relations similarities
There should be no doubt that National under Key and English is much more liberal and centrist on Maori issues. The party is now continuing the process begun by Bill English in the early-2000s of modernizing and making the party seem ‘less white’. Young and Thomas provide further proof of this shift in National’s race relations policy and public face:
On race relations policies more than anything else, his party has changed. As evidence that those changes are deeper than superficial, consider the rehabilitation of Hekia Parata, the 2002 National Party Wellington Central candidate... After Don Brash's race relations speech at Orewa in 2004, though, Parata said she was "ashamed" to belong to the National Party, and that the policy was "the antithesis of everything I've worked for professionally and personally." She was nowhere to be seen in the 2005 elections but is once again contributing to the National Party and is talked about as a possible strong candidate for 2008.
Although initially critical of Treaty politics, since 1990 National has actually adopted the liberal Treaty model of race relations in this country. A political consensus developed in mainstream politics when they adopted Labour's Treaty and biculturalism politics and spent nine years in government as enthusiastic advocates of Treaty settlements and race-based politics. In fact National probably wrote more Treaty of Waitangi references into law than Labour ever did.
See: Twenty years of biculturalism
None of this is an argument to say that the Maori Party will in fact do a deal with National, but merely that such a scenario is much more possible than many on the left acknowledge. After the 2008 general election it will probably make most sense if the Maori Party sit rather independently on the cross benches. Such a position will very correctly convey exactly where the party stands on the political spectrum – right in the middle, with enough pragmatism to ensure that absolutely anything is possible.